Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A country in trouble


Every time a recent immigrant complains about the United States, citizens respond, "If you don't like it, why don't you go back to your country?" In fact, a few years ago I tried to go back to Mexico, and I could not adapt to my native country. I missed the American organization, the ease of life, the efficiency of the banks, utilities and postal systems, and above all, I missed the everyday safety.

I truly believe in the expression that says "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Which means that you are in the location where something bad is to happen exactly when it happens. What this means is that you can get mugged any place in America or the world. But there are two components that make Mexico a riskier place to be: The police force is not trustworthy and people cannot defend themselves.

I lived in Guadalajara with my two daughters in a guarded, gated community. Our neighbors were very nice. The next-door neighbor worked at the Mexican-German Consulate. Our other neighbor, across the street, was a dentist. But down the street was an enormous house with an electric door where different cars were coming in and out all day long. People whispered they were "narcos" (a short word used for people involved in the narcotraffic). But no one challenged them.

Somehow, we all managed to live peacefully in the same community. At the homeowners association meetings, the woman complained about the increasing crime and corruption in Guadalajara. I suggested, "Why don't we get together, organize a movement and do something to stop it?" They looked at me with exasperation. "What can we do?" they responded.

Living so many years in this country, I forgot how things work in Mexico. The Mexican people have no power, no voice, no enforceable laws and no arms to defend themselves. The federales (Mexican police) do periodical car searches for arms. If a civilian has an arm, it is immediately taken away. Also, people much prefer not to go to the police. They know they are not going to do much, and in more cases than less, they may be involved in the same crimes that people are reporting. When we see a police officer in Mexico, we get out of his way.

The lack of an effective police force and proximity to the United States made the perfect environment for the narcotraffic to appear in Mexico. The narcos not only bring violence, but also have a lucrative side business: kidnapping.

Like thousands of Mexican businessman, a friend of mine from childhood was kidnapped last summer, and we don't know what happened to him. We don't know if he is alive. I often ask his wife through Facebook if she has any news about him. I asked her several times, "Is there anything I can do? Can I write letters? Can I post his face on the Internet?" "On the contrary," she says. "It is important to keep calm and to be discreet, otherwise he may be harmed." Discreet? How can I be discreet when our friend, who lived an honest family life, disappeared? How I can be discreet when more than 35,000 innocent Mexicans have died in the narco war?

Narcotraffic and kidnapping are difficult subjects to talk about. The United States doesn't want to look at what's happening south of the border. It's easier to build big walls, strengthen security and continue with our lives. But when there's a lot of pressure, sooner or later that pressure is going to find its way out. Everyday life in Mexico is becoming more difficult. The wealthier have fled the country. Others live in U.S. border cities like San Diego, El Paso, Tucson or Phoenix, and commute to Mexico to work in their businesses. Others are buying armored cars or hiring bodyguards. Middle-class and poor Mexicans live in constant fear for their lives.

While all this is happening, the Unites States seems to be in a state of denial. For sure, the United States has its own problems, and it cannot resolve the entire world's problems. But the difference is that Mexico is our neighbor, and if our neighbor goes down, we may be more affected than we think. If the situation continues as it is, the United States could have millions of refugees at the border, Mexican civilians could arm themselves against the narcos, the narcos could expand their kidnapping and drug-related crimes north of the border or the Mexican government could collapse altogether.

The victims of this violence (people like you and me) are not causing the situation in Mexico—the buying and selling of drugs are causing the suffering. The narcos need to be disarmed and brought to justice. The drug and weapons trafficking has got to stop. The kidnapping must be stopped. Drugs are infecting both the United States and Mexico in a terrible way.

On my American side I cannot be silent, yet I feel there are not enough words to explain the magnitude of the problem. On my Mexican side I am appalled—I don't know how to help the people in my country of birth. I don't know how I can help my friend who has disappeared at the hands of these criminals.

What I can do today is to acknowledge that there is a deep problem on the other side of the border, talk about the problem, morally support the victims in Mexico and talk to my kids about saying no to drugs. I also pray that my friend is somehow alive in Mexico. I can only hope that the United States and Mexico find the political will to come together and recognize that this is not a problem created by just one country—and that it will take both countries working together to end this war.

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